Monday, October 28, 2013

Masters of the Mountains Round 5: The art of racing in the rain?

So, after last month's round that was shared with the WERA National series, we were going to be back to the UtahSBA MOM regular schedule for this weekend.  I was psyched to be racing with the local guys again and looking forward to having a more chill atmosphere in the paddock.

Actually, there was one slight change to the schedule in that the normal Friday trackday was only going to be an evening session from 5:30pm to 8:30pm.  I figured riding that late into the night before a race weekend wouldn't be ideal, so I bagged the trackday and decided I'd get my practice on Saturday during the Endurance race.

Saturday Practice and Endurance Race.
Saturday morning was a pretty relaxed, with a slow start that included a visit to the bakery for some coffee and pastries--which, really, is the way every day should start in a civilized world.  After getting the appropriate dose of sugar, butter, and caffeine, Carrie and I started the 40 minute drive to the racetrack to get set up and ready for the afternoon's Endurance race. 

Once we entered the track, a nice, familiar feeling was immediately apparent--these were our peeps, an extended family of sorts, sharing the same passion for racing motorcycles.  As we drove through the paddock to our garage, we stopped to say hi to a few people and check out who showed up for the weekend.  Eventually finding our garage, we parked, unloaded the van, set up the tools and garage area, took the bike through technical inspection, and got everything ready for the warm-up and Endurance Race later in the afternoon.  Then we chilled out and watched some of the practice sessions and the Deseret Dash races.

For those of you that aren't super familiar with the LDS (Mormon) thing; here in Utah, Sundays are for church and family. So, those LDS racers we have whose religious traditions don't consider a racetrack a place of worship and a "family" of fellow speed junkies as suitable company on Sunday, they can only race on Saturday.  So, our club put together a couple races on Saturday called the "Deseret Dash" (Deseret is a Mormon word that has various meanings).  These races are kind of nuts to watch, because they're a mixed class, where pretty much any rider on any bike can run.  Meaning, Expert licensed riders, Novice licensed riders, 250cc bikes, 600cc bikes, and 1000cc bikes.  I've never raced a Deseret Dash, but I can say that just watching from the sidelines is quite a thrill.  It's quite dangerous on paper and looks as about what you'd assume.  Even when I'm just spectating, my heart rate rises and my palms get sweaty when the huge grid, comprised of all those different bikes with all those riders of different abilities, pour into Turn 1 at the start.  For the most part, it usually all works out and most people survive unscathed.  Even though I'm only using the Endurance Race for "practice", it's still a race and I need to be psyched up, so watching the Deseret Dash and all it's contained debauchery is a good way to get my blood pumping.

After surviving my spectating duties, I headed back to the garage to get ready for my warmup session.  Gas in the bike, tire warmers on, pressures checked, leathers on, bike warmed up, etc, we waited for the officials to make the calls announcing the beginning of the session over the PA.  This was just going to be a shakedown to make sure there were no problems with the bike and to get my brain going for the proper start of the Endurance Race in about 30 minutes.  It's always weird to head out for the first session of the weekend and try to adjust from life at normal speed to life at 140mph within the span of a minute.  After a handful of laps, I pull back in and head back to the garage to gather fuel and a few tools to take out to the hot-pit.  Then we wait in the garage for the officials to make the PA calls for the start of the race.

First, second, and third call are made, so we get the warmers off the tires, lower the bike off the stands and I head out to the pre-grid area to wait to be let out on the racetrack.  After less than a minute, we're let out for our warm-up lap.  This is where the racer in me comes out; even though I start the warmup lap knowing I'm just using this race as "practice", by the time I finish the warmup lap, I'm in full race mode, thinking about nothing more than getting the holeshot into Turn One.  I didn't get the best launch off the line, so a couple people got away better than I did, but I was absolutely determined to get through those riders in the braking zone and get the line first into Turn One.  Which I did in a pretty aggressive and authoritative way.  Even though this was "practice", it was a race, right?

I put my head down for the first few laps and got a decent gap on everyone--keep in mind, they are all actually racing the Endurance Race, so they needed to conserve their tires and motorcycle so their team could make it to the end.  Tortoise and hare kind of thing.  Anyway, over the course of the race, I pulled in a few times to make adjustments to the front end preload settings and see if I could improve the bike's handling during corner entry and mid-corner.  After all was said and done, I completed a pretty good chunk of laps (enough to earn me third in the race, against teams of up to three riders), figured out what worked and what didn't on the front end, and set a very respectable lap time on shagged tires.  I was feeling good for Sunday's races.  

Ahh, Sunday.  Race day. 

The morning was coldish and definitely had more than a hint of rain in the air.  I was a little sore from so many laps on Saturday, so I took it pretty easy in the morning practice sessions and just tried to loosen up and be smooth.

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the rain did hold off, but, of course, right before it was time for me to go out for my first race of the day, the King of the Mountain-GTU race, the sky let loose.  It started with a few sprinkles and built quickly to a crescendo of quite hard rain.  After about 5 minutes, it backed off to a constant drizzle.  Race control delayed the start of the race, hoping to get a feel for whether the conditions would dry up or stay wet.  If it's full wet conditions, no problem.  If it's full dry conditions, no problem. But when it's kind of dry, but still kind of wet, with a chance conditions could change; that's when things get hairy.  Choosing incorrectly between rain tires or slick tires can mean disaster if you've misread track conditions or they change drastically during a race and you're racing on the wrong tires.  So, after a bit of a holding pattern, we were going to be let out on a wet track.  Full rain tires it would be.

Riding in the rain is actually really cool and proper rain tires offer an amazing amount of grip in the wet, so I was psyched.  However, the rain motivated almost everyone else that was signed up for the race to sit it out and stay in their garages.  So, this race would be pretty much be just me and my main competitor, Scott Decker.  Truth be told, it was kind of lame lining up with just the two of us, especially since Scott said he didn't even want to race and was going to pull off early and collect his championship points.

After being released from the hot pit and taking to our out lap, I tested conditions a little.  Grip seemed good enough and there was only one place on the track with significant standing water that I would need to avoid during the race.

We came around, gridded up, and waited for the starter to show the green.  As soon as he did, I was off, out in front of Scott and immediately started to find my rhythm.  On the other hand, Scott was immediately uncomfortable and had to tip-toe around the track.  Lap after lap, I pushed just a little harder, trying to explore the limits, but knowing I had the win locked up and crashing would be stupid.  I was feeling great and was quite amazed at the performance of the tires.  I was able to brake pretty hard on corner entry and open the throttle and pick up shifts quite early on exit.  It was really cool--although a few of my friends admitted after the race they were a little nervous watching me into and out of Turn 10 from their spot on pit wall.

Clearly very uncomfortable with the conditions and his tires, after about 5 laps Scott Decker pulled in.  A lap after that, the checkered flag was shown and I go my second win the class of the year.  It was good to get 1st place points for the championship, but I wouldn't say it was my favorite win ever--beating one other guy that was clearly having problems wasn't totally rad.  But, I'll take it!

The next race was the Middleweight Superstock race.  It was scheduled to start about an hour and a half from the end of the KOM-GTU race and the weather was improving, suggesting it would be a dry race.  So, I switched wheels back to the ones I had mounted up with proper dry-weather slicks and waited.

This race was going to be a little more difficult, because my friend and constant sparring partner, Chad Swain was racing with us this weekend and would be gridded up with us.  I was really looking forward to a good battle with him after running solo in the KOM-GTU race.

On my warmup lap, the bike felt weird.  I thought maybe because I was used to the rain tires on the wet surface from the previous race or something, hopefully I was just being hyper sensitive. When the green flag dropped, I bobbled the start a little and Chad got the holeshot to the first turn.  As soon as I tipped it in, I felt that something was indeed wrong with the setup of the bike.  I was having a terrible time trying to get it to turn and when I tried to push, the front would chatter and push wide.  I tried to change my line, turn the bike harder, open the throttle quicker--all kinds of things, but no matter what, all I could do was watch Chad ride off in front of me, gapping me by a second and a half per lap.

I was still fast enough to finish second place, but I was super frustrated.  As soon as the race was over, I came into the garage, looked at my laptimes (which were 2 seconds slower than my normal times), and wondered what the hell went wrong.  Was the track really that bad from the rain?  If so, why was Chad so much faster than me?  Then I got to thinking about the setup work I was doing during Saturday's endurance race.  I grabbed my 19mm socket, stuck it on a t-handle and checked the preload on the springs in the front fork.  Preload is measured in "turns" on the preload adjuster, which is meant to put a little bit of load on the spring, slightly compressing it even while the suspension is fully extended. When I backed the preload adjuster all the way out, I confirmed my suspicion: I had 4 turns too many on my front springs.  I felt like an idiot; I left a bad setting in the front end from Saturday's testing, basically raking out the front end too far and causing the handling issues I was experiencing.  Lesson learned: when finished making adjustments and testing different setups, f$#king pay attention and make sure to put the best setting back in the bike before racing.

I was definitely disappointed to have blown an opportunity to battle with Chad.  Since he's been racing the AMA Pro series, he doesn't come down to all of our races anymore.  I just hope he'll be back for the final round in October, so I can have a rematch...

As always, huge thanks to Tarik and the crew at Honda Suzuki of Salt Lake, the Utah Sportbike Association, Scott Larsen at Fastline Race Tire, Andrea Onida at Dainese and AGV, Kory Cowan and the crew at Moto Station, and especially my girlfriend Carrie.

See you in October!

Photo credit: Steve Midgely 

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